Conclusions to EcclesiastesBible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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What are we to make of this mix of good and ill, meaning and vanity, action and ignorance, which the Teacher finds in life and work? Work is a “chasing after wind,” as the Teacher continually reminds us. Like the wind, work is real and it has an impact while it lasts. It keeps us alive, and it offers opportunities for joy. Yet it is difficult to assess the full effect of our work, to foresee the unintended consequences for good and ill. And it is impossible to know what our work may lead to beyond the present moment. Does work amount to anything lasting, anything eternal, anything ultimately good? The Teacher says it is really not possible to know anything for certain under the sun.
But we may have a different perspective. Unlike the Teacher, followers of Christ today see a concrete hope beyond the fallen world. For we are witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of a new Teacher, Jesus, whose power did not die with the end of his days under the sun (Luke 23:44). He announces that “the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matthew 12:28). The world we live in now is in the process of being brought under Christ’s rule and redeemed by God. What the writer of Ecclesiastes did not know — could not know, as he was so keenly aware — is that God would send his Son not to condemn the world, but to restore the world to the way God intended it to be (John 3:17). The days of the fallen world under the sun are passing in favor of the kingdom of God on earth, where God’s people “need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (Revelation 22:5). Because of this, the world in which we live is not only the remnant of the fallen world, but also the vanguard of the kingdom of Christ, “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).
The work we do as followers of Christ therefore does — or at least could — have eternal value that could not have been visible to the Teacher. We work not only in the world under the sun, but also in the kingdom of God. This is not to engage in a misguided attempt to correct Ecclesiastes with a dose of the New Testament. Rather, it is to appreciate Ecclesiastes as God’s gift to us as it stands. For we, too, live daily life under much the same conditions the Teacher did. As Paul reminds us, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22–23). We groan under the same weight the Teacher did because we are still waiting for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth.
Ecclesiastes, then, offers two insights unmatched elsewhere in scripture: 1) an unvarnished account of work under the conditions of the Fall; and 2) a witness of hope in the darkest circumstances of work.
An Unvarnished Account of Work Under the Fall (Ecclesiastes)
If we know that work in Christ has a lasting value not visible to the Teacher, how can his words still be helpful to us? To begin with, they affirm that the toil, oppression, failure, meaninglessness, sorrow and pain we experience in work are real. Christ has come, but life for his followers has not yet become a walk in the garden. If your experience of work is hard and painful — despite God’s promises of good — you are not crazy after all. God’s promises are true, but they are not all fulfilled in the present moment. We are caught in the reality that God’s kingdom has come to earth now (Matthew 12:28), but it is not yet brought to completion (Revelation 21:2). At the very least, it may be a comfort that scripture dares to depict the harsh realities of life and work, while yet proclaiming that God is Lord.
If Ecclesiastes serves as a comfort to those working in harsh conditions, it may also serve as a challenge to those blessed with good working conditions. Do not become complacent! Until work becomes a blessing to everyone, God’s people are called to struggle for the benefit of all workers. We are indeed meant to eat, drink and find enjoyment in all the toil we are blessed with. But we do this while striving — as also we pray — that God’s kingdom come.
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A Witness of Hope in the Darkest Circumstances of Work (Ecclesiastes)
Ecclesiastes also gives an example of how to maintain hope in the midst of the harsh realities of work in the fallen world. Despite the worst that he sees and experiences, the Teacher does not abandon hope in God’s world. He finds the moments of joy, the sparks of wisdom, and the ways to cope with a world that is ephemeral, but not absurd. If God had abandoned humanity to the consequences of the Fall, there would be no meaning, no good in work at all. Instead, the Teacher finds that there is meaning, and goodness in work. His complaint is that they are always transitory, incomplete, uncertain, limited. Given the alternative — a world completely without God — these are actually signs of hope.
These signs of hope may be a comfort to us in our darkest experiences of life and work. Moreover, they give us an understanding of our co-workers who have not received the good news of Christ’s kingdom. Their experience of work may be very similar to the Teacher’s. If we can imagine enduring the difficulties we experience, but without the promise of Christ’s redemption, then we can gain a glimpse of the burden life and work may be to our co-workers. Pray to God this will at least give us more compassion. Perhaps it will also give us a more effective witness. For if we are to bear witness to Christ’s good news, we must start by entering the reality of those to whom we bear witness. Otherwise, our witness is meaningless, glib, self-serving and vain.
The brilliance of Ecclesiastes may be precisely that it is so upsetting. Life is upsetting, and Ecclesiastes faces life honestly. We need to be upset when we become too accommodated to life “under the sun,” too dependent on the comforts we may find in situations of prosperity and ease. We need to be upset in the opposite direction when we fall into cynicism and despair because of the hardships we face. Whenever we make an idol of the transitory achievements of our work and the arrogance it produces in us — and conversely whenever we fail to recognize the transcendent meaning of our work and the value of the people we work among — we need to be upset. Ecclesiastes may be uniquely capable of upsetting us to the glory of God.